Op-Ed: It takes a village to keep Rwandan kids safe

NEW YORK (JTA) — Only 15 years have passed since the mass murder of nearly 1 million people during the course of 100 days in Rwanda. Throughout this African nation, the genocide is recalled in memorials and ceremonies, where survivors give testimony. And recently on a mountaintop in Rwamagana, at a special place called Agahozo-Shalom, 125 Rwandan students, comprised mainly of orphans of the genocide, held a memorial service (along with a nation of 10 million).

In June, those same students, together with Rwandan dignitaries and international visitors from North America and Israel, will celebrate the inauguration of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, or ASYV, a special project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that was completed recently to house Rwandan orphans and vulnerable children.

Agahozo-Shalom provides a rich, communal living environment ensuring security, structure and unconditional support. The philosophy of the village combines tikkun halev, repair of the heart, and initiatives for tikkun olam, repair of the world.

Many of the children remain haunted by their brutal past, suffering from psychological conditions such as trauma. A U.S.-trained social worker, a full-time professional nurse, and a staff of house mothers and counselors live on-site and help address the children’s psychological needs. The medical clinic also is a major asset to the village.

The children engage in sustainable agriculture, benefit from on-site computer and arts centers, and have the opportunity to pursue vocational training in agro-forestry and information technology. None of them would have a clear path for a future without the opportunity offered by this village.

“We are helping them to grow and see far into the future,” ASYV founder Anne Heyman says.

Certainly Jews understand the weight of post-genocidal trauma. My mother, who survived the Holocaust as a child by hiding in the woods of Belarus for 3 1/2 years, suffered from shock and terror. Throughout my childhood, more than a decade removed from the Holocaust, my mother continued to experience nightmares that brought her back to the events of her past. She would awake screaming in the middle of the night, terrified to be reliving the trauma buried in her memory.

At the memorial service at Agahozo-Shalom, some of the children told their stories. Many became extremely emotional, reliving their horrors. House mothers and counselors, fellow students, ASYV staff and other community members came together to offer comfort and solace to ensure these children felt safe.

Within the Jewish world, the JDC has worked with Holocaust survivors to heal some of the psychological wounds of the past. Yemin Orde, one of many Israeli Youth Aliyah villages that served as homes to orphans of the Holocaust, has served as the model upon which ASYV is based.

We have learned from the experiences of these Israeli villages. When we listen closely to the Rwandan children retell their horrors, we can hear the echoed narratives of our own survivors. As a community we know about the importance of testimony and communal memory.

That’s why JDC, which works with some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, has taken on the challenge in Africa, the global region facing some of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. To do this important work at Agahozo-Shalom, we have partnered with an array of organizations in Israel, each bringing its own expertise to the village (agro-forestry, IT and educational pedagogy). The village’s U.S.-based corporate partner, Liquidnet Holdings Inc., has provided both financial and volunteer support.

For the first class of ASYV students, JDC has made a significant difference. We look forward to welcoming the second class this December. We do this because we know, even on mountaintops in Rwanda or desert landscapes in Israel, we can make sure that the promise of every child is fulfilled.

(Will Recant is assistant executive vice president at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.)

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